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`It is a very narrow definition of politics that would deny John Wayne's political importance'. A new biography shows Wayne to be an influential icon of the American dreamscape
"Why Him?" asks Garry Wills in his introduction to John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity, a little too defensively. "When I began this project [in 1994], that was the question most often asked when anyone learned of it. I had received no such queries when I said I was writing about Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They, after all, held political office, formed political policy, and depended on a political electorate. People cast votes for them. They just bought tickets for John Wayne's movies. Yet it is a very narrow definition of politics that would deny John Wayne's political importance."

And so begins what seems a strange but very promising marriage. Garry Wills, after all, is not a movie historian or critic; he is a sober commentator on America's political culture, the author of Reagan's America, Nixon Agonistes and The Kennedy Imprisonment, which attempt to explore the mind- set of recent presidents, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, an inspired disquisition on the great but rather brief speech Lincoln gave there, and what it said and says to and for America.

He warns early on that this book is by no means a biography of Wayne, or a thorough survey of the films. No, he wants to discover what Americans feel about Wayne - not least someone like Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has admitted that Sands of Iwo Jima has been the most influential film in his life, and that Wayne's graceful walk was a model for him. Straight away, it tells us a lot about Wayne's authority that the roly- poly Gingrich is admitting this. It's a sign of how deeply Wayne's look and manner has penetrated our fantasies - and it may be more of a sign than Wills ever quite grasps that America in this century has been a dreamscape as well as a real place.

This is a large point. Wills is very willing with the movies; he wants us to like them and respect them as works of art and show business. That's proof of the building awareness in America's political classes that movies or dreams on celluloid (that's where the former become today's political campaign ads) have a lot to do with the idea of ideas and leadership. But Wills is solemn about it; he doesn't share in the grisly humour of the dream taking over from real life. He reckons that a diligent historian can keep the two things separate.

So it's a step in the right direction that a writer like Wills sensed the significance, the place, of Wayne. Though I find it hard to believe that so many were baffled at the choice. Americans "get" the relevance of Wayne quickly and naturally. Maybe Wills is still having to convince himself, or get over the fact that, while he worked on his book, two history professors, Randy Roberts and James Olson, filled the gap that had long been apparent: they wrote and published, in1995/6, a lovingly researched biography, John Wayne: American.

They didn't write as well as Wills does; they were not his match as thinkers; but they spent ten years on their biography. They found the real man, root and branch, and let the record speak for itself beside the legend. There's something else to say - even if I offer it as a hunch - which is that Roberts and Olson like Wayne, and his world, more than Wills does. I suspect they feel they lived in John Wayne's country and regard it as home - a place that Wills observes with warm, scholarly detachment, as a place to visit. (There's a dust jacket photo of Wills in Wayne's Monument Valley that carries an unmistakable air of the proud tourist.)

Wills is highly appreciative of what Roberts and Olson have done: indeed, on most matters of historical record, he trusts and repeats them. But their book is nearly twice as long as his, and the length is rich in detail that describes America as much as Wayne. On the other hand, ironically, Wills enjoys the role of film critic. The one thing he's better at is talking about the way Wayne moved and spoke, and how some of the films came into being. Again, I never quite felt that he was moved by Red River or The Searchers (and the philosophy or politics of Wayne depends on emotion), but Wills has been to the archives and traced the progress on scripts so that we see the evolution of Wayne's persona.

What Roberts and Olson managed is the very thing I anticipated in Wills. They showed the uneasiness in Wayne, the gap between myth and reality. This was not a matter of expose, but they established the ordinary being once known as Marion Morrison, and the inescapable fakery in the life of any actor. "The fact that he never really was a cowboy or soldier," they wrote, "is cause not for scorn but for reflection."

He was from the mid-West, from Iowa, child to an amiable, feckless father and a tough chilly mother. He was named Marion Robert, and called "Bobby", but when the parents had a second son (Marion was five) he got the name "Robert" and the Duke-to-be became Marion. That mother was the first person who taught him failure, and she helped establish his gentle, rather wistful bewilderment with women. (He was seldom a good husband, to three women, all Latin.) The family came to California, and lived as best they could as farmers near Lancaster (semi-desert), clinging on to the shifting land, before moving in to Glendale.

But Marion was a terrific-looking kid, and enough of an athlete to get a scholarship to the University of Southern California. We should stress his physical ease - Wills compares his stance with classical sculpture. Just because Wayne wanted to be manly doesn't mean that he hadn't worked on how to walk and stand, how to watch, and how to hesitate when he spoke. He had a riveting presence - everything began with that, and it is how he seemed wiser, nobler and more honest on screen than any man could be. He was made to be on camera: perhaps that is the very American solution to how he was also a chump in life (especially with money) and inclined to meanness if he thought no one was watching. He longed to be good, to be seen as good, to be admired. Being in a movie was therefore his destiny (and his politics). Long before he'd done 170 movies, he had carried that camera style into real life.

He wandered into movies during a college vacation. He fell in with the John Ford gang, but Ford trusted him more as a crony and a follower than as an actor. Then Raoul Walsh saw him - lifting up an armchair - and cast him in The Big Trail, in 1930. That film flopped and Ford spurned the actor. For a decade, Wayne was a cowboy with Mascol, Monogram and Republic, in B-pictures and serials, even a singing cowboy. Eighty movies, not much dignity, years of learning and a hard-core following in the South and the South-West (Wayne's America is not urban, not close to universities).

Then, in 1939, Ford relented and cast him in Stagecoach. All of a sudden, Hollywood saw that the guy had magic. From 1945 until 1970, he was the personification of action heroes and an unrivalled box-office champion. He did a lot of empty-headed adventure movies, to be sure, but he also made Sands of Iwo Jima (as the spirit of the Marines, no matter that he had ducked military service), the tyrant in Red River (a Howard Hawks film that opened Ford's grudging eyes to Wayne's acting prowess), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, Hondo, The High and the Mighty, The Searchers, Wings of Eagles, Rio Bravo, The Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, In Harm's Way, El Dorado and, yes, The Green Berets (which stands for the flimsy notion that Wayne-ism got America into the Vietnam war).

The later work was less good. He won an Oscar in True Grit, but the very title smacks of camp. He was too old, too heavy, too set in his ways, too much the bully, and out of step with turbulent times. He was also deathly afraid of illness. Not that that prevented the grave marvel of The Shootist, where he could play a man who dies bravely, or the resolution with which the ruined, stricken figure came down the staircase on Oscars night, 1979, to give the Best Picture award to - God help him - The Deer Hunter. But many soldiers in Vietnam dreamed of John Wayne, and The Deer Hunter concerns desperate men who have been led astray by dreams.

Of course, the Duke's aura persists, and will do so as long as people are held by the mysterious conclusion to The Searchers, where racist bigotry dissolves into helpless family feeling, before the hero faces final loneliness in the desert. I saw a piece in a paper recently that described the old code by which Wayne and others live. It sounds like the world Wills is interested in, but he never gets there:

They love to drink beer. They love cowboy boots. They like good music. A dirty bar. Loose women. They are all Republicans. Most of them are veterans. They believe in going to war. They're very patriotic. They are the kind of guy that gets all choked up when they hear the National Anthem.

The newspaper piece I've just quoted described Mark Fuhrman, the cop on the O J Simpson case - the smart, very tidy one - who ended up taking the Fifth Amendment, but who came back with a best-selling book and appearances on TV talk shows where he gave the most credible account of the case I ever heard. The Mark Fuhrman who had never used the "N" word, except a few hundred times as he worked on a movie script.

It's a legacy of John Wayne that even his very solid, very straight followers dream of being in a movie. And in that picture, we realise, "American" fits not just a Congressional medal (Wayne got one), but a wanted poster, too. Wayne's World!

`John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity' by Garry Wills is published by Faber at pounds 20

(left) A political position? In The Sons of Katie Elder, John Wayne takes up the classic man-alone, action-hero stance